The front page of today’s New York Times has an aerial photo of a house in Sioux Center, Iowa, with the words “In God We Trust” on the roof. The article, a long one, is ‘Christianity Will Have Power’ with the subtitle “Donald Trump made a promise to white evangelical Christians, whose support can seem mystifying to the outside observer.”
A familiar topic. I skimmed it. It begins by recalling a 2016 speech he made in that town:
“I will tell you, Christianity is under tremendous siege, whether we want to talk about it or we don’t want to talk about it,” Mr. Trump said.
Christians make up the overwhelming majority of the country, he said. And then he slowed slightly to stress each next word: “And yet we don’t exert the power that we should have.”
If he were elected president, he promised, that would change. He raised a finger.
“Christianity will have power,” he said. “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”
What is the power he thinks Christians are deprived of? Is he not familiar with the First Amendment? Why do Christians, by far the most dominant religious group in the nation, feel so persecuted? Why do they feel so underprivileged? Why does it seem as if they need to define themselves as people who cannot civilly get along with people who are not like them? Is it just that persecution complex?
Theories, and rationalizations, abound:
That evangelical support was purely transactional.
That they saw him as their best chance in decades to end legalized abortion.
That the opportunity to nominate conservative justices to the Supreme Court was paramount.
That they hated Hillary Clinton, or felt torn to pick the lesser of two evils.
That they held their noses and voted, hoping he would advance their policy priorities and accomplish their goals.
But beneath all this, there is another explanation. One that is more raw and fundamental.
He is their protector, the bully who is on their side, the one who offered safety amid their fears that their country as they know it, and their place in it, is changing, and changing quickly. White straight married couples with children who go to church regularly are no longer the American mainstream. An entire way of life, one in which their values were dominant, could be headed for extinction. And Mr. Trump offered to restore them to power, as though they have not been in power all along.
“You are always only one generation away from losing Christianity,” said Micah Schouten, who was born and raised in Sioux Center, recalling something a former pastor used to say. “If you don’t teach it to your children it ends. It stops right there.”
Well yes, precisely. Cf. A.C. Grayling, the paragraph quoted at the middle of this post, To put matters at their simplest. Because once forgotten, any particular religion would never be rediscovered. No religion is detectable from the real world, except as a matter of circumstance, and circumstances change.
“There’s fear in the people,” he said. “The fear, the fear of losing everything —” His unfinished sentence hung in the air. The lights in the main fellowship hall were off.
Fear — exactly. Fear of losing privilege; fear of change.
This morning Hemant Mehta posted his take on the article: White Evangelicals Love Trump Because He Feeds Their Persecution Complex.
I would phrase that differently: White evangelicals have always lied to themselves about being persecuted. Trump gives them a chance to be the persecutors. They don’t want religious freedom. They want religious supremacy. Trump gives it to them. And if a bunch of people have to die or suffer because of Trump’s malice, those evangelicals don’t give a damn.
That’s what Christianity has come to represent in the age of Trump: The people who constantly claim to be morally superior would rather have the trophy than earn the title.
If Biden wins the election, no one will show up in Sioux Falls, Iowa to force residents to give up their churches or beliefs, just as no such thing happened under Obama. All that might happen under progressive policies is that everyone, including Christians, would be obliged to get along, where civil laws apply, with people unlike themselves. Instead of insisting they know the one true way, and enforcing that upon everyone else (via, for example, the Supreme Court). Why is that so difficult for them?
This recalls the idea of the “Benedict Option,” proposed by the conservative Christian writer Rod Dreher some years ago. The idea is for Christians to withdraw from a multicultural society and form their own isolated communities, in order to practice their faith without interference. Here’s an article in The Atlantic from 2017:
The Christian Retreat From Public Life. Subtitle – note the second sentence – “Rod Dreher makes a powerful argument for communal religious life in his book, The Benedict Option. But he has not wrestled with how to live side by side with people unlike him.”
This means deliberately sealing yourself into a bubble and ignoring any of kind of reality outside it. (As in practice many small towns like that one in Iowa are effectively already doing.)
The problem with religions is that they entail imaginary, inconsistent realities. If such a reality becomes so important that it’s necessary to block out all the others, then it’s a fantasy universe, like living in a video game. The ultimate life in a bubble. This has been possible for most of human history, when tribes lived in isolation of one another. It’s become less possible in recent centuries, as humanity has spread around the planet and previously isolated tribes (communities, nations) have come into contact with each other, and realized the advantage of doing business with each other. The only way to sustain such a global society – which cannot be undone, despite the current nationalistic authoritarians like Trump and others – is to realize that there really is a single, coherent reality, and it’s not based on anyone’s religion.